New York’s subways aren’t safe. Three stranger-on-stranger homicides occurred during the first two months of the year, making a total of 34 killings in four years. Violent felony subway crime, overall, was 61 percent higher in January compared to January 2019, the start of New York’s last normal year. But Governor Kathy Hochul’s latest idea, deploying the National Guard on the platforms and trains, is no solution. The National Guard is a military force; it exists to respond to natural disasters and external threats, including terrorism. Subway crime and disorder are neither of these. They’re the predictable result of New York’s pullback over the past half-decade in incapacitating recidivist criminals. We don’t need to send in the troops. We just need to do what we did until 2019: keep anti-social and violent people off the subways.

Hochul is sensitive to subway crime. It almost derailed her election to a full term in November 2022, when public fear of violence nearly propelled Republican Lee Zeldin to statewide victory. Two weeks before Election Day, four subway killings in 17 days spurred the governor to pay for a surge in city police underground. These 1,200 extra NYPD shifts more than doubled transit policing capacity. (The NYPD’s Transit Bureau counts 2,730 officers, but they work in shifts, of course.)

It worked: no one lost their life between the policing surge and Hochul’s election. The number of police in stations and on trains remained elevated throughout 2023, and the police presence did make a difference in crime numbers. Over the final two months of 2022, and for all of last year, the greater numbers of police began both arresting and ticketing lawbreakers in pre-Covid numbers again. Arrests, which had sunk by nearly two-thirds in 2020 compared with the year before, exceeded 2019 rates by 31 percent. Summonses, which had fallen by 57 percent in 2020, exceeded 2019 levels by 88 percent. (It’s reasonable to wonder whether arrests and summonses hadn’t fallen in 2020 simply because crime had fallen with ridership, but alas, that is not the case. During 2020, violent crime on the subways, both in raw numbers and per-capita, soared, as commuters deserted the system, while recidivist criminals and mentally ill homeless people remained.)

Yet for all the success of the policing surge, and with ridership up to about 70 percent of the pre-Covid normal, violent subway crime remained nearly twice as high, per capita, as it was in 2019. And the worst category of violent crime hasn’t abated at all: homicides. In the quarter-century from 1997 to 2019, New York had an average of one to two murders a year on the trains. In 2020, despite ridership that never reached one-quarter of normal levels after the mid-March lockdown, seven people lost their lives to murder on the subway; the following year, the figure remained the same. The subways’ true annus horribilis (so far) came in 2022, when higher ridership collided with higher disorder and violence, with disastrous results. Eleven people became murder victims, the highest level in nearly 30 years. Last year, that figure was “only” six (including two victims left out of official NYPD murder numbers on grounds of self-defense).

This year, we’re off to a bad start, with three murders, and these deaths are a microcosm of the city’s deterioration. In January, 45-year-old grandfather Richard Henderson was shot on a Brooklyn train as he tried to mediate a dispute over loud music. In February, 35-year-old Obed Beltrán-Sánchez, a construction laborer, became the victim of a stray bullet on a Bronx platform as a gunfight broke out among teens. A week later, 45-year-old William Alvarez, a homeless man riding a Bronx train, was surrounded by a trio of alleged assailants, apparently strangers to him, and fatally shot.

Why are disorder and violence suddenly so resistant to stronger police enforcement? The answer is simple: though police can enforce the law, they have no power to keep recidivist suspects behind bars, whether awaiting trial or after conviction. So police arrest the same people over and over again. As Janno Lieber, chief of the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said last week, “of 45 people [who] were arrested for employee assaults” last year, “only 11 were indicted. That gives me concern.” NYPD transit chief Michael Kemper agreed: “all categories of enforcement are at or near historic levels.” But, he added, “we find ourselves far too often arresting the same individuals over and over and over again. . . . We are routinely arresting recidivist routine criminals . . . people with dozens of prior arrests. . . . They are back out . . . sometimes within hours.”

Some examples: cops caught a Bronx felony pickpocket mid-crime earlier this year. It was the suspect’s third arrest for grand larceny in two months, and his 55th career arrest. One alleged assailant who hit an MTA supervisor with a mop wringer last year had the case dismissed; another, who struck a worker with a broomstick, had the charge downgraded from assault to harassment and was ordered to take an anger-management course. An assailant who allegedly committed two assaults on MTA workers, striking one with a metal pipe, had the case dismissed. An individual who allegedly committed four assaults on MTA workers was found unfit to stand trial. True, a severely mentally ill suspect shouldn’t stand trial, but where is this dangerous person now? Will New York keep him in a mental facility, or let him back out on the streets? The woman who allegedly attacked an authorized subway musician as he performed for commuters at Herald Square in February was immediately released with no bail, despite a history of not showing up to court after some of her eight earlier arrests. Shortly after, cops caught her shoplifting, and a judge finally set bail—of $500. The man who allegedly sliced a man on a Manhattan subway in a homophobic attack had already racked up ten arrests—and on and on and on. 

Kemper’s cops have also recovered 17 guns from people in the transit system this year—triple last year’s levels—often by catching someone jumping over a turnstile. But these arrests barely affect public safety because gun possession now routinely merits a no-bail or low-bail release.

Hochul’s latest fix doesn’t address these problems. Deploying 750 National Guard soldiers and 250 state police won’t fix the criminal-justice system. New York ruptured nearly three decades of public-safety success in the few years leading up to 2019 with its efforts to “reform” cash bail, discovery, and juvenile justice. The governor is only now haltingly trying to repair this broken system. But if district attorneys won’t prosecute recidivist fare-beaters, as Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg still refuses to do, such low-level criminals simply rack up civil ticket after civil ticket, until they commit a violent crime in the transit system. National Guard members can’t make arrests—and we have no shortage of arrests right now, in any case. We just can’t keep suspects off the streets or prosecute them quickly and decisively.

Further, according to the governor, the National Guard will be checking people’s bags for weapons as they enter the subway system, working under NYPD supervision. But this is redundant: police can and do conduct bag checks when they stop individuals for fare-beating. The National Guard, by targeting all commuters and not just fare-beaters, will inconvenience law-abiding riders, thereby harming transit’s painfully slow ridership recovery. The subway is not an airplane; passengers shouldn’t have to endure a comprehensive search before they board. Further, since paying passengers, unlike fare-beaters, can freely exit the transit system rather than submit to a National Guard sentry’s bag search, the move will be ineffective. If I’ve stashed an illegal gun in my bag, I can avoid having the Guard find it by simply walking away and going back upstairs.

The National Guard can’t protect Hochul from her failure to keep dangerous recidivist criminals behind bars. Deploying the Guard, rather than doing the hard work of fixing the criminal-justice system, is justified in only one scenario: the threat of terror. After suicide bombers attacked London transit in 2005, New Yorkers, for a while, grew accustomed to NYPD officers stopping them and conducting bag searches as they entered the transit system; National Guard troops have also regularly patrolled major transit hubs, scanning for threats. If New York faces an imminent organized-terror threat—which wouldn’t be surprising, considering that we’re fighting two proxy wars against Russia and Iran, while failing to secure our southern border—the governor should say so. New Yorkers would be grateful for a National Guard presence on the subways and would put up with the minor inconvenience of bag searches.

But they shouldn’t put up with such nonsense as an exercise in crime-security theater.

Photo by Adam Gray/Getty Images


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